A guide to streaming in 4K, HDR, and Dolby Atmos


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Having more to watch for less money isn’t the only benefit of cord- cutting.

While the traditional TV world drags its feet on supporting 4K HDR video, streaming services such Netflix and Amazon Prime have offered those formats for years, letting you watch higher-resolution video with richer color detail. They’ve also been steadily adding support for Dolby Atmos, an object-based form of surround sound that adds audio height cues to movie and TV show soundtracks (you can read all about Dolby Atmos and its chief competitor, DTS:X, at the preceding link). All of this means you can replicate more aspects of the movie theater experience without leaving your couch (much to the dismay of some folks in Hollywood).

Still, buying a fancy 4K HDR TV and Atmos soundbar (or even a full-blown home-theater audio system) doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be watching TV in those formats. Obtaining the best picture and sound quality requires connecting your hardware in specific ways, using specific streaming services, and watching specific content. Here’s a checklist for making sure you’re getting your money’s worth:

Step 1: Check your connections

If all you have is a 4K HDR-compatible smart TV with nothing else hooked up to it, you’re in great shape, at least on the video side. Just use your smart TV’s built-in software to play some 4K content, and it should work provided you have a fast enough broadband connection. (More on those content sources shortly.)

The situation gets more complicated as you connect external streaming players to your TV, because now each link in the chain must support 4K and HDR as well. For instance, you’ll need a 4K-compatible streaming player, such as Roku’s Express 4K+ or Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K.

rokuexpress4kplushero Jared Newman / IDG

If you want to use an external streaming player with your 4K TV, make sure it supports 4K as well (as the Roku Express 4K+ does) to get the same picture quality.

You should also connect these devices to your TV’s best HDMI input, because some inputs may not support 4K or the color depth required for HDR. (This is especially true for devices with Dolby Vision HDR, which requires 12-bit color depth.) Check the labels on your HDMI ports or consult your TV’s manual for more details.

For Dolby Atmos, you’ll need a compatible soundbar or receiver hooked up to your TV’s HDMI-ARC slot, as the format doesn’t work over an optical cable or 3.5mm audio output (thoses connections just don’t have enough bandwidth to handle the data). If your HDMI-ARC slot is also the one that provides the highest video quality, you’ll need a soundbar or receiver with its own 4K-capable HDMI input. Plug your streaming device into that input, and your soundbar or receiver will pass the video along to the TV through the same cable that handles the audio.

Step 2: Use 4K-friendly streaming services

Even with a 4K HDR TV, compatible streaming device, and Atmos audio system, you’ll still need streaming services that support these formats. Here are the ones that do as of August 2021:

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